With the bad, sometimes, comes the good. The bad was the 2011 flood that caused countless dollars of damage along the Souris River Valley. The good, at least a few acres of it, will be improvements made to the Conservation and Skills Park at the North Dakota State Fairgrounds.
The Conservation Park has been a top attraction for several years at the State Fair. For nine days the park is staffed with personnel from the North Dakota Game & Fish Department and a variety of volunteers, many of them retired professionals. Activities that includes fishing, archery and target shooting is all free of charge.
The Conservation Park is currently closed, and is scheduled to remain so until July 20 the first day of the 2012 State Fair. Under normal circumstances the catch-and-release fishing ponds would remain accessible to the public, but the 2011 flood raised havoc with the facility and with the ponds.
"During the flood we had a lot of debris come in. Wood, metal, silt was probably our biggest enemy out here," said Greg Gullickson, North Dakota Game & Fish Department outreach biologist in Minot. "The pond did lose a lot of capacity because of all the silt that washed in here. On top of that we had some species of fish come in too, mostly northern pike and bullheads that aren't good for young anglers to learn on."
Extensive clean-up has been done at the park, including power-washing of buildings and fences. The natural appearing split wood fence that was an identifying feature of the park became a victim of fast-moving flood water. It will be replaced. Surprisingly the buildings, many of them resembling large sheds, remained in place.
Shortly after the flood water receded, and the extent of damage could be determined, Game & Fish was presented with some good news.
"The fair approached me and asked if we'd like to take on more area," said Gullickson. "So, yes, we are. Our existing park was right around two acres, I believe, so we are basically making our Conservation Skills Park twice the size of what it was."
"I think it's neater than all get-out," said Terry Steinwand, NDG&F director. "The fair gave us a tremendous opportunity to expand. It didn't take long to say, yes, let's do it."
The park will expand toward the fair's east parking lot, taking over what was a miniature golf course and the Tracks-Plus building.
"We'll have the whole area all the way around the pond. Within the mini-golf there are trees and shrubs and a lot of natural things. We still have a lot of work to do with heavy equipment but, with the mild winter, we got some things done," observed Gullickson. "It has been a struggle here to find contractors but, fortunately, we've been able to find some local guys who really believe in the outdoors and the hunting and fishing and archery and have kind of stepped up with electrical, painting, construction, even dredging the pond."
"We are so excited about their expansion," said Renae Korslien, State Fair director. "Everyone loves that area. People loved it before, so now it will be doubled."
With more room comes other changes as well. A few of the existing buildings will be moved to the new area, eliminating a congestion problem that sometimes occurred in the existing park. A second entrance will be added, meaning fair patrons will no longer have to enter and exit the Conservation Park through a single gate.
"We run just shy of 15,000 people through here during the fair," said Gullickson. "Now we'll have a flow-through situation where people can walk through rather than dead-end and have to turn around and walk back out. I look for that to be a big improvement."
During the fair, visitors have an opportunity to let their kids fish or participate in other outdoors skills while they can take the time to visit with wildlife professionals in a relaxed atmosphere. It gives the public a chance to see biologists and wardens away from the field. The Conservation Park provides another opportunity too, the chance to get away from the usual hustle and bustle of the State Fair.
"It has really evolved," said Steinwand. "We get a good amount of people who like the green space, shade trees and grass. It's a little different from the midway and everything is free. It's a good place to bring the kids."
The park's fishing dock is gone now, away for repairs. According to Gullickson, the refurbished dock will be bigger and better. A new casting platform will be added to the west pond, allowing for more fishing room in the east pond. Walkways are scheduled for upgrades. A mini-amphitheater will be built into the natural terrain in the newly acquired area, all surrounded by new grass, which will do much for the appearance of the park.
"It's an ambitious goal with a lot of work to be done, but we're ahead of the game. Mother Nature has certainly treated us nice this winter," said Gullickson. "We wanted to plan this out, not do a bunch of work in a hurry. We want to have a good plan and a good vision before we start spending sportsmen's dollars out here."
A focal point of the park has always been the fishing pier, both during the fair and at other dates on the calendar. The water in the ponds has been lowered to make repairs easier. When the dirt work is done and the new fishing dock installed, water will be pumped back into the ponds and fish will be added. Gullickson says he hopes that trout, perch and bluegill will be available.
"That's what we want to do. We'll have some nice panfish," said Gullickson. "It's a great urban fishery. Lots of times when you come down here there are four or five people on the dock even though it is catch-and-release fishing. We're probably best known out here for the nine days of the fair, but this thing is active from April 1 all the way through the end of October."
Area wildlife clubs, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and other groups request to use the area throughout the year. A fall festival is held each autumn, often filling the grounds with youth excited about the fall hunting seasons.
"We were getting a bit tight as we gained in popularity," said Gullickson. "Now we'll be able to do some more displays and move a few buildings, maybe put up a few new ones. We have some great things happening."
Contractors are expected to be on site from now until very near the opening of the fair. Heavy equipment can be expected to remain at the location until completion. Gullickson suggests that fishermen who normally use the park try the Souris River until the park becomes open to the public once again.